April 6, 2015

Is your audience suffering an engagement drought?

One solution to the drought: Succulents!
On my walk today through one of Santa Barbara's more affluent neighborhoods, I made mental notes of all the ways the residents are dealing with California's historic drought.

Before the governor instituted the recent mandatory order to reduce water usage, many Santa Barbarians turned a blind eye to damage the drought was causing. While many residents and businesses have used native landscaping for years, there are also still plenty of lush, green lawns.

On my walk, I saw lots of green lawns. But I also saw brown lawns. And I saw lawns in the process of being torn up.

I saw well-established native and drought-tolerant landscaping and lots of new plantings of drought-tolerant plants.

I saw gravel, stone pavers, and decomposed granite. And I saw the most extreme solution for lawn replacement: Two houses in a row with artificial turf. It looks pretty good unless you really stare at it!

There are many, many ways to achieve the goal of drought-tolerant yards in Santa Barbara. Some people still have "lawns" of native ground cover. Some people have bark-lined paths among profusely wild native plants. Some people are going with stone and granite, and using plants as accents.

For speakers, there are also many, many ways to achieve your goal of engaging an audience. Determine what works for you, what fits your communication style and personality, and go from there.

Don't like the idea of standing in front of the room and talking for an hour straight? Great! Give your audience lots of activities to do in pairs and groups and get them to report back their results and solutions.

Love the sound of your own voice? (Come on, you know you do...) Great! Tell stories that illustrate your points so that your audience can apply your concepts to real-life situations.

Have you always been the class clown? Great! Use humor - either self-deprecating humor to tell your own stories, or humorous stories and jokes that are relevant to your points. People LOVE to laugh.

Are you more of an emotional, sensitive listener? Great! Ask a lot of questions and listen to your audiences' stories to help them discover how their experiences tie into your main points.

Are you artistic and creative? Great! What images and props can you use to help your audience internalize your ideas?

Are you intense? Feisty? Sarcastic? Warm-hearted? Goofy (raising my hand...)? Blunt? Outspoken? Generous? Soft-spoken?

Great! There is always a way to engage your audience that will fit with your style and your personality. And yes, you can combine audience engagement techniques - in fact, it's better if you do. But you don't have to do everything.

Just don't do nothing.

Doing "nothing" in California has led us to the place we are today, with our state having to take drastic measures to reduce water use.

Doing "nothing" to engage your audience will lead you to a drought of attention, interest and connection!

February 23, 2015

Stay weird.

Our favorite, and most effective, awards show speeches tend to go one of two directions: Humor or passion.

Both kinds of speeches have the same effect, to trigger an emotional response in the audience.

The response to the humorous speech is laughter, if only a chuckle or an internal giggle. The responses to passionate speeches can vary. Some speeches make us cry, others make us angry. Some make us want to stand up and shout, "Hell yeah!"

Three speeches stood out at last night's Oscars ceremony for their emotional triggers, and prompted all three above-mentioned responses, and more.

We started off with Patricia Arquette, accepting her award for Best Supporting Actress, making an impassioned plea for wage equality. The standing up and fist-pumping was demonstrated by Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lopez, who was sitting next to her, was equally fired up. Not to mention those of us at home, clapping and cheering!

Then we heard a moving speech by Common and John Legend, right after their powerful musical performance, sharing the award for Best Original Song from the movie Selma.

Common started off, saying "Recently, John and I got to go to Selma and perform 'Glory' on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on 50 years ago.

This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.

This bridge was built on hope. Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings."

Then John Legend stepped to the microphone and continued, "We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago. But we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.

We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today.

We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on."

If these two speeches weren't enough to fire up all the viewers, Graham Moore finished the job. Accepting the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie The Imitation Game, Moore had this to say:

"Alan Turing never got to stand on a stage like this and look out at all these disconcertingly attractive faces. I do. And that's the most unfair thing I think I've ever heard.

So in this brief time here, what I want to use it to do is to say this: When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself, because I felt weird, and I felt different. And I felt like I did not belong.

And now I'm standing here, and I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she's weird, or she's different, or she doesn't fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. Stay weird, stay different. And then when it's your turn, and you are standing on this stage, please pass that same message to the next person who comes along."

In an interview after the show, Moore said, "This sort of felt like the thing I always wanted to say and I never thought in my life I'd actually be on a stage and say it."

What's the lesson here? The best speeches have an emotional trigger. The best speeches are those the move the audience in some way, that speak to our humanity and our deepest needs and desires. The best speeches are those that make the audience FEEL something, not always a GOOD something. But something.

You have a choice. You can be the one who gets on stage and plays it safe. Or you can be the one who speaks up and stands out!

View the three speeches below.

February 6, 2015

P.S. It's about the money

In 2012 I wrote a post harshly titled, "I don't care about your dreams." I was making the point that when Project Runway contestants suggested that they should go to Fashion Week because they "... had always dreamed of being a fashion designer," they were way off base. The audience (and Project Runway producers) doesn't care about your dreams. They want to know how you're going to make their life better.

Fast forward to this week's American Idol episode: Hollywood Week.

Singers were asked why they think they should be the next American Idol, and there was plenty of the same "I deserve it because I'm unique," and whatnot. Until Loren Lott took the stage.

Lott: "I'm the next American Idol because I think that I can make American Idol a lot of money."

JLo: "You're speaking the language right now."

See that? Maybe that's not what the audience wants to hear, but it sure is what the American Idol producers want to hear! It's a business, not a dream factory. Loren gets that.

Here's to a contestant who actually gets the point. Give the audience what they want by being an engaging performer. Give the producers what they want by being marketable. And in return, you get what YOU want! (Well, we'll see if she gets what she wants, but at least she has the right attitude!)

Watch Loren Lott's Hollywood Week performance here:

January 31, 2015

Do people want to call you back?

How often do you think about how you sound on the phone?

Not often enough, I'd bet.

I frequently get messages from people with mumbled messages, names I can't understand, phone numbers rattled off too fast, and not enough information. A couple of weeks ago, someone left a message without saying her name at all! Kind of awkward to call back and say, "I'm not sure who I'm calling, because there was no name in your message..."

Another aspect of phone messages and talking on the phone in general that I notice is the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the caller.

Now, I don't expect you to be jumping for joy when we speak on the phone, but I also really don't want to talk to you when your voice is monotone or dreary. Think about how you can put some warmth and friendliness and energy into your voice when you call someone. Make them feel glad they picked up the phone. Make them feel like you're happy to be talking to them.

I have a client who, when I call him, does not sound at ALL happy to be talking to me. Now I know this is not the case, and I know him and his voice. But if he's calling a client, or someone who he would like to become a client, he sure as heck better put some friendliness and energy into his voice.

Here are some tips to leaving a good phone message that will make someone want to call you back:

1. Speak slowly and clearly. It's okay if you speak slower than normal!

2. Mention the date and time you called, in case they don't check their voice mail regularly or are traveling.

3. Say your name clearly, and if your name is unusual or hard to pronounce, please spell it.

4. Say your phone number slowly and clearly. This is the most important part of your message! Without a clear phone number, the person can't call you back!

5. BONUS TIP: Let the person know what you're calling about. I like to know if someone is calling me as a prospective client, for example. I helps me to know how to approach them when I call back. It puts the person on the other end at ease, rather than leaving them hanging, not knowing who you are or what you want.

Just like when giving a presentation (and phone messages are mini-presentations), you want your audience to be engaged and interested, and to feel like you're interested in them. Take the extra effort to put some care into your phone messages and your phone conversations and watch how the person on the other end warms up to you!

ETA: Thank you to Deb Coman's comment, which reminded me of another bonus tip. How you ANSWER the phone is also important!

Recently I had to call a plumber fairly early in the morning. The woman who answered sounded like I had interrupted her and was not at all pleasant as she took my information. That reception, coupled with less-than-stellar service from the plumber himself caused me to delete this company from my mental database for future business.

Answer the phone like you want to talk the person on the other end. If you don't want to talk on the phone, don't pick it up.

January 15, 2015

What does your audience really expect of you? Guest post by Barry Potyondi

It is the most common sin among speechwriters, and almost all of us are guilty of committing it: in our zeal to sound authoritative, coherent and memorable, we forget that speeches begin and end with the listener, not us.

Before any of us put pen to paper, we would do well to take a moment to look at things from the listener’s point of view. Regardless of the speaking opportunity, every audience wants the same three things from a speaker:


How many times have you listened to a speech and come away thinking, “What on earth was he trying to say?”

When listeners are confused by a presentation, their respect for the speaker diminishes. And if they aren’t listening respectfully, they will fail to absorb the lessons of the speech. It is not enough to be an expert with something important to say; you must also say it clearly. Anything less than effective communication defeats the purpose of your presentation.


How often does a member of the audience say that a speech was far too short? Watch any audience during a speech and you’ll see many listeners tune out after about ten minutes. Within 20 minutes, the speaker will have lost most of them completely.

So why do most speeches run on and on? The reasons range from the speaker’s inflated sense of self-importance to his or her lack of self-confidence. The best way to offset either tendency, and therefore hold the attention of your audience, is to be brief. Brevity and impact are closely related. To be brief, you must have command of your subject and express your knowledge succinctly.

In short, you must make your presentation more like a Super Bowl commercial than a State of the Union address.


A speaker’s third and greatest responsibility is to engage listeners. Simply put, you must try to make them think differently or, better still, act decisively.

For example, the eulogist at a funeral service strives to leave you with an indelible, positive impression of the deceased. The corporate executive presenting quarterly financial results aims to increase, or at least maintain, investor confidence in the company. The urban planner presenting a concept design for approval is determined to convince a city council that her redevelopment scheme will benefit the community. In each case, the speaker is attempting to reinforce or alter the beliefs of the listener and jumpstart a corresponding mood or action.

Remember that all good presentations make a single, strong point. Better presentations challenge the thinking of the listener. Great presentations bring about change.

When you put yourself in the audience’s seat before you write, it is far more likely that you will produce a memorable and compelling speech. Your words will excite members of the audience, inspire them, perhaps even change them. When you succeed at that, you’ll be well on your way to making a genuine difference in your community.

In the words of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, author of The Little Prince, “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work; but, rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Put your listeners first, and you’ll leave them longing to hear more from you.

About the writer

Award-winning author, speechwriter and communications strategist Barry Potyondi has written speeches for clients ranging from nervous first-time award winners to chief executive officers of global Fortune 500 corporations. SPEAK EASY: A Short Guide to a Great Speech, his sixth non-fiction book, is available at www.howtowriteaspeech.ca.

January 2, 2015

December 12, 2014

DIY speaker gift: Speaker Survival Kit!

Last March, I had a booth at a local women's business festival. I wanted to give something away in a drawing that would be useful to those who stopped by, and specifically useful to speakers.

What I came up with was my "Speaker Survival Kit," and I wanted to pass this idea along to you as a fun gift that you can put together, in a variety of price ranges, for your favorite speaker.

Click here to see what I put in my bag of goodies

This kit cost me about $50 to put together. You can make yours smaller and less elaborate, or go all out!

For example, I could also have included a nice refillable water bottle, some flip chart markers, or a fun noisemaker to get the audience's attention back after an activity.

I grouped small items together in clear cellophane bags, so it wasn't a big mess inside.

Have fun, and if you do make a Speaker Survival Kit for someone, I'd love to hear about it!
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